Julien Neaves, Editor
The entertainment world was thrown into mourning last year with the death of actor Chadwick Boseman, most popularly known for playing the titular Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But he left a grand legacy in film and one of his greatest performances, and also his last one, is as the cocky, fast-talking trumpet player Levee in the Netflix drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
The film, directed by playwright and film/theatre director George C. Wolfe, is based on the award-winning 1982 play of the same name by August Wilson. It is set in 1920s Chicago and tells the story of an ill-fated recording session of real life Blues legend Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and her band.
Boseman pours his heart and soul into this performance and won a well-deserved New York Film Critics Circle award for best supporting actor. Levee is a man who has drank his own Kool-Aid and is overly confident to the point of abrasive arrogance. He has no respect for Ma Rainey nor the elder members of the band, is a spendthrift, short-tempered know-it-all who believes he can do and say whatever he wants because his dream of his own band is on the horizon. As the story progresses we get Levee’s backstory and you learn why he become such a reckless and troubled individual, and why he both detests and needs “the white man”.
Levee is by no means a likeable character but Boseman still infuses him with enough charm and swagger that he is not intolerable. And in the more emotional scenes he is an eruption of passion and pain. It is truly a stunning and riveting performance.
The always dependable Viola Davis does a fantastic job as the titular Ma Rainey, a supremely arrogant woman who takes no crap from anyone, especially the white man. The themes of race relations, religion, romantic relationships, and gender politics are all explored in this tight little film. The spot-on costuming and rich Blues music also add to the rewarding viewing experience.
I will say that the story’s theatre feel does surface often, similar to the previous Denzel Washington-produced Wilson play adaptation Fences, which also starred Davis. But it does not detract much from a fantastic film with a masterpiece of a performance by Boseman.
Julien’s Score: 9.5 out of 10
For the Redmangoreviews tribute to Boseman you can click here. And for my review of Spike Lee’s war drama Da 5 Bloods, one of Boseman’s final performances, you can click here.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”.
I can also be found posting on Instagram as redmanwriter and talking about TV and movie stuff on Facebook at Movieville.